Irrationality and Experience

by Lucas Wilkins

Why should we care if someone else is being irrational? and in what way can we know that this is actually the case?

The idea of rationality is often thought of as a consistency within a collection of behaviours or beliefs. For example, if I think it is absolutely wrong to eat meat, I should think it is wrong to eat beef. As beef is a meat it would be irrational for me to think it was wrong to meat but also have the belief that it is OK to eat beef. Similarly, it would be irrational to think that eating meat was abolutely wrong, and then eat a plate of steak. To be rational, my behaviour should also match what I think.

How do we know when we are being irrational? Asking about the rationality of other people seems easier at first. When we observe others, we can spot things that they ought not be doing if they were rational. For example, they might claim to be vegetarian whilst eating a steak. According to most people, I would say, what they are doing is inconsistent. But this doesn’t mean that they do not have a perfectly consistent way of thinking that accounts for their actions and it is us, the majority, who have failed to grasp it. How do you know that someone else is being irrational, not you yourself?

I don’t know how it could be possible to tell. We cannot absolutely rule out the possibility of our own irrationality. But, just because we cannot rule out the idea that we are being irrational, the converse is not true. We have explicit evidence of “irrational moments” from our own experience. We realise that what we are doing is not what we think we should be, or we suddenly realize that this or that belief does not match up with others which we hold. We have a direct, conscious, appreciation of it. Sometimes at least.

Oh, shit! What am I saying!

One would have to be insane to experience a moment of irrationality without the slightest attempt to “fix” it. In fact, I would go as far as to say, experience of being irrational is indistinguishable from some attempt to remedy it. Having an “irrational moment”, means understanding that you ought to be thinking or doing something differently. We have little else to judge our irrationality by other than our own experience of these moments. Sure we can make models of behaviour and hold people up to those standards. Sure, we could if we wanted, deem all belief in Gods irrational. But our decision to do would be founded on our own personal experience of our capacity to err and adjust in the direction of subjective consistency. They are models informed by our own experience of what rationality is.

So, from the point of view of our own experience the only time when we are irrational is when we are attempting to make our thoughts or actions more consistent. Such irrationality is something we can observe in others – people exclaim it, and we can sense it in body language and manner. When someone realizes that they are doing something not quite right by their own standards, we can see it in their face and hear it in their words and tone.

Given all this, how should we interpret a persons claim that someone is being irrational? It is one of two things, either they are just saying that they think the other is wrong. Or, they are saying something far less pompous: They’re saying, in effect, that the other person has the capacity to experience an irrational moment in some particular context. They can undergo a valuable transformation. I consider the latter to be the correct way of speaking about irrationality, because outside of a highly polemic debate (even in it) the former serves little purpose.

Understanding that you are mistaken is a powerful thing. It signals the bringing about profound and useful changes in thought and action. Being informed that you are being irrational can, at its best, lead to this kind of powerful experience. One which anyone (sane) would welcome. As social animals, we can also use it to deepen our understanding of each other by highlighting which thoughts and actions we consider consistent; bringing our beliefs and actions into alignment with those of others. But claims of irrationality are often only worthwhile among friends who share a roughly similar outlook. If there is no empathy or mutual understanding – if one cannot comprehend the experience of the other sufficiently – then one cannot say what will induce the personal transformation implicit in realizing ones irrationality.

Without acquaintance, a claim of irrationality leads only to disappointment. If someone without due skill or empathy calls someone irrational (or implies it) one of two things goes wrong. Either they are perceive them as overbearing and are completely put off, or, they give the benefit of the doubt only to be disappointed with their accusers inability to provide the promised experience. One only needs to type “creationism” into Google to observe this in action.

Ultimately, we can only judge the rationality of others with ourselves as the standard, and all we can tell about it is learned from those places where we have experienced its failure. We usually consider this experience to be a valuable one, and with skill and empathy we can guide others towards such experiences. Telling someone that they are irrational can be a powerful tool for personal and social transformation, but without kindness and respect it becomes either impotent or fierce and alienating.

One Comment to “Irrationality and Experience”

  1. As someone who has personally experienced irrationality and a transformation of perspective in the last 48 hours I concur.

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